Pumpkins, Unicorns, and Saints of God

Taking Children’s Ministry Seriously (But Not Too Seriously)

One thing you should know about me is that I was the first place winner of the 1990 Sunday school Bible verse memory competition. I both learned and recited all ten verses in record time, or so I like to think, and most importantly, for my effort, won a denim fanny pack with dainty pink satin roses on it.

I loved Sunday school. I treasured my opportunity to place flannel Moses in the flannel basket and carefully smooth the basket and the baby into the flannel reeds on the board. I enjoyed the apple juice and graham crackers, the sticker charts and prize bins. I sang the songs and remembered the stories and basically won at Sunday school.

Sure, there was a lot of fear caused by my lessons from Sunday school. Was it age appropriate to teach fifth graders about the rapture? Probably not. Was hell and brimstone and fire a compelling reason to pray the Jesus prayer? Absolutely. Was it a good way to share the Gospel? I guess it depends on your idea of success.

Youth group was a different story, in some ways. At my very reformed church, I learned about the theological acronym TULIP, but I often joke we only got to the “T,” or “total depravity.” I never learned the -ULIP part. We spent a lot of time on our sinfulness, our utter brokenness and inability to change. All this did was give me more evils to watch out for, and now, instead of evils outside myself — like the antichrist, I had to guard myself against evils inside.

The human brain tends to be more vigilant than necessary, probably left over from our days as hunter-gatherers, when we lived in much greater danger. But my brain is more vigilant than most and ultimately, the lessons of guarding ourselves against sin meant my mind was filled with anxiety about how evil I was, with little consolation of grace.

When I finally had my breakdown, what consoled me were not the theological sermons I heard about Calvinism, or the rules to follow to avoid evil. Even the rapture and end times stopped causing me grief. I was depressed, anxious, and unable to function. How could the apocalypse even compare?

What did stay with me were the verses and songs from my early Sunday school days. “God is so good. God is so good. God is so good, he’s so good to me.” “Cast your cares upon him for he cares for you.” “Jesus loves me, this I know.” I cannot throw out the basket of harm done by Sunday school, lest I also throw out the flannel baby: all the good Gospel truths I learned there too.

As a parent, I am more cautious than my peers when it comes to church and Sunday school. I certainly stay away from any who claim to convert my children and definitely avoid any who teach about the End Times. While I am grateful for the good messages I heard, I am even wary of churches that try to teach responsibility, patience, or justice. I remember the weight of those lessons and I am hesitant to sign my children up for a similar, dissonant theology.

Our former church in Houston was incredibly welcoming to children. Children were included in all parts of the worship service. The clergy and staff encouraged participation, maybe more than even we, as parents, were comfortable with. Sometimes we wished our children participated less vocally during the quieter parts and less actively during the sitting parts. But I was constantly reminded of how Jesus welcomed children in spite of what was comfortable and proper in the minds of his disciples.

Before the annual Trunk or Treat in 2019, the church hosted an outdoor time of worship, children and some adults in costume, gathered in the parking lot. Our rector, dressed in a jack-o-lantern shirt, led us in opening collects and readings. We had a very short and easy to understand sermon by our awesome assistant rector and then we celebrated the Eucharist.

I didn’t really consider what our kids would do, especially as we were outside and not familiar with the church. This was one of Margot’s first times going forward and before I knew what was happening, my three year old extended her hand for the bread. Our rector, the one in a pumpkin shirt, handed her a piece and so I quickly coached her to intinct (a fancy church word for “dip in the wine”) and eat the wafer. We got back to our seats and it struck me. Margot’s first communion was celebrated not in a fancy dress after long conversations about what it all means and classes about the faith or even with great deliberation on her part or ours. Margot’s first communion was celebrated in a parking lot while she was dressed as a unicorn. And I believe God was pleased with that.

I also know when my children go forward for communion, they know it matters not what they wear or how they look, or even what they are thinking about. Our priests hand them the bread and the wine as a reminder that God gives even when we do not deserve it. And this experience will resonate with what they read and hear.

The statistics around pastor burnout are dismal. Josh Retterer recently wrote about pastors after COVID and while he offers a great word of grace, the stories of pastoring through a pandemic are exhausting. And if you think adult pastors have it hard, consider those who minister to children and families. Parents are burned out. Children are experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression. Children’s pastors are not immune to the fatigue. Barna just released a study that 56% of children’s ministry leaders agree that children’s ministry is often forgotten by their church.

Some of this is because of the past three years: the fluctuations in attendance in Sunday school, the lack of volunteer leaders, most likely due to the previously mentioned parent burnout. But some of this was around long before. Children’s ministry is too often seen as a way to occupy the kids so they don’t distract from the real ministry, the sermon to the adults. There are a few problems with this mindset, the first being that the real ministry is not the sermon, but I digress. The biggest problem with this mindset is it does not take children seriously.

If we truly welcome the newly baptized into the church, as my church congregation promised last week to do for a baby, then we have to take their attendance and attention as seriously as we do adults. Not because it will ensure they continue in their faith, or because this is the age when their values are formed, but because they are fully integrated members of the Body of Christ, and as such, need to hear the Gospel just as much as we adults do.

Children first experience the feeling of shame before or around the age of two. Guilt is more complex because it has to do with empathy and understanding others. But most children experience the feeling of guilt before or around age 6. The gospel, the good news of God’s mercy and love for his children, speaks to emotions and experiences our kids are already having.

Just as some Sunday schools do not take children seriously enough, others, however, take them too seriously. Sunday school becomes outcome oriented. We measure success by how many children are present, how many children say they accepted Jesus into their hearts, by how they behave, whether they live moral lives and make good decisions. Children’s ministers in these settings grow weary when the very human children they work with act like humans, when they cannot measure progress or improvement, when the standards set on their ministry are impossible to attain.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Not, teach the children to obey me and then they can come, or give them lessons about the right and moral way to live and then they can come. No, Jesus welcomed children, as readily, or maybe more readily, than he welcomed adults. As a mother, I can think of nothing better to teach my children.

The Gospel delivers a refreshing word to parents and children’s ministries. You cannot control or program your children. Moralization of the message may work for awhile, until it doesn’t. What will remain is the truth of the Gospel, the words of comfort, the songs of love and the promises of God’s mercy and grace.

StoryMakers is thrilled to announce Dr. Esau McCaulley will speak at StoryMakers’ first Sparks Conference: Refreshing our Gospel Imagination in March, 2023. The conference will be a time to hear the Gospel, remember why we serve children and families and explore our own creativity. With whimsy and classic StoryMakers flair, the conference is designed to encourage and inspire anyone who works with and loves children. Join us!

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COMMENTS


6 responses to “Pumpkins, Unicorns, and Saints of God”

  1. Jenoa says:

    I’ll be there!!! ✨

  2. Jane says:

    Yay!

  3. Joey Goodall says:

    This is so good, Jane!

    As a dad and former youth worker, I was constantly “amen”ing throughout my reading of this article.

    So grateful to you, Melina, and the rest of the Storymakers team for all you do to get grace across to kids.

  4. Deanna Austin says:

    Wonderful article, Jane. It brought back so many memories. You’re such a good writer!

  5. Audrey says:

    So good Jane! And timely as I start as Children’s Ministry Director at our church!

  6. David Zahl says:

    Just beautiful, Jane

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